The CPUSA and the unemployed movement of the 1930's

Speech at the Third Congress
of the Marxist-Leninist Party, USA -- Fall 1988
Reprinted from the Workers' Advocate Supplement,
vol. 6, #2, February 15, 1990.

[Introduction by the Workers' Advocate Supplement]
The 20's and the 80's
The crisis hits
They were angry
The CPUSA as champion of the unemployed
The Unemployed Councils
Scenes from the struggle
Links with the employed workers
The part-time workers
The councils weren't stable and lasting
Due mainly to CPUSA's method of work?
CPUSA's internal weaknesses
Objective factors influencing the councils
FDR Takes Office
CPUSA's Stand Toward FDR
The Party Conference on July 1933
Industrial concentration as central task
Lesser level of work among the unemployed
Unemployment rises and CWA is promised
Workers' Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill
Weaknesses in the Campaign for the Workers' Bill
The National Congress on Unemployment Insurance of January 1935
The Question of the Labor Party
Struggle of Trends in Unemployed Movement
Unity Agreements Among the Organizations of the Unemployed
The liquidation of all struggle


. At the Third Congress of the Marxist-Leninist Party, USA in Fall 1988, a speech was given on the CPUSA's work in the unemployed movement of the 1930's. While the great depression was bringing ruin and starvation millions of workers, it was the communists who stood up for the unemployed. The accomplishments of this work, and the difficulties it encountered, are of lasting interest. But the CPUSA's change in line in the mid-30's, which was in accord with the corrupt views of the Seventh Congress of the CI of 1935, led to the destruction of this work. From a party which carried out the most consistently revolutionary work of any working class party in U.S. history, the CPUSA was step by step transformed into what it is today --a lapdog of the bourgeois liberals and a betrayer of Marxist communism. Its abandonment of communism is why it is necessary to build up a new Marxist-Leninist party today.

. The following article is based on the speech and a far longer report which it summarized, and it expresses the viewpoint of the comrades who carried out the study. [--Workers' Advocate Supplement, February 1990]

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. In the not too distant future we are likely to see another period of economic crisis and high unemployment. And it is likely that the next crisis will be far deeper and far more severe than the crises of the 1980's. Due to the Reaganite cutbacks in social programs and unemployment insurance, next time around, the situation of the unemployed will be far more desperate than in the recent past. Already, due to restrictions on eligibility enacted in the past decade, less than 32 per cent of the unemployed are eligible for any unemployment insurance. This compares with over 75 per cent as late as 1978. Thus the question of unemployment and the struggle of the unemployed are likely to assume much greater significance.

. In order to provide some historical background on the question of tactics with regard to the unemployed movement, the Central Committee has assigned my branch to look into the history of CPUSA's work among the unemployed in the 1930's.

. But first, to grasp the work in the 30's, it is necessary to have some understanding of the 1920's.

The 1920's and the 1980's

. The 1920's were a period much like the 1980's. It was a decade of intense capitalist offensive, rationalization of industry, and relatively high unemployment among industrial workers.

. The unemployment rate among industrial workers was 10 percent or better. The number of employed industrial workers decreased during the decade by about 200,000, while production increased about 40 per cent. Considering the natural growth of the working class population, this rationalization drive meant a large increase in mass unemployment. Rationalization was brutal and intense in every industry from the then new auto and electrical industries to the old mining and textile industries. But unemployment was highest in the older industries such as mining, steel, textile, and garments.

. The 20's were also a decade like the 80's where the union hacks wouldn't lift a finger to defend the workers. The American Federation of Labor refused to organize the workers in the mass production industries, the overwhelming majority of the workers. It sold the workers out left and right under the policy of business unionism and concessions. It made a mockery of trade union democracy and threw communists and militant workers out of unions, even where they had won the majority. It scorned the plight of the unemployed and even opposed assistance for them or unemployment insurance on the grounds that this would encourage laziness. Meanwhile the Socialist Party paid lip service to unemployment insurance but supported the rationalization drive and talked of the glories of American capitalism which had supposedly overcome crises.

. Despite the relatively high unemployment rate of 10 per cent or better, there was no movement among the unemployed during the 1920's and the CPUSA's few attempts to launch unemployed councils were unsuccessful. Although unemployment was high, workers still tended to believe the capitalist propaganda that it was a temporary phenomenon and that private charities and families would take care of the unemployed. But this did not mean that unemployment had no effect on the workers. The insecurity of life was a big weapon in the hands of the capitalists to drive down wages and to enforce speed up. And speed up reached a point where millions of workers were debilitated long before they reached the normal end of their working lives.

. Toward the end of the 20's, despite all obstacles, a struggle to get organized and oppose rationalization began to develop in the older basic industriesmining, textile, and garment.

. In this situation the Communist International called on the CPUSA to come forward as the leader of the rank-and-file workers against the capitalist offensive of rationalization and unemployment. It called on the party to boldly organize the unorganized instead of waiting for the AFL to do so, and to lead strikes against rationalization and wage cutting. It put forward the demand for a seven hour day and unemployment insurance to unite the employed and unemployed and take the lever of unemployment away from the capitalists. And it called for organizing the unemployed into unemployed councils to fight for immediate relief.

. The CPUSA did take up this policy, and it sought to root itself in the big factories, mills, and mines. It led a number of militant strikes and organized tens of thousands of workers into the TUUL unions through these battles. (1) The CP was a leading force in the miners strikes and in the New Bedford, Passaic and other textile strikes. It carried out a lot of agitation for the unemployment insurance and shorter working hours, although it was unable at this time to actually organize unemployed councils. And the CP and the TUUL unions continued the struggle to organize basic units on a factory rather than an area basis.

. At the same time, this progress shouldn't be overstated. The situation varied from city to city but some sources say that only about 10 percent of the party membership were in what it called "shop nuclei''. (2) The percentage of party members belonging to unions including TUUL unions was also low. The CP had inherited from its left social-democratic origin the tradition of a loose and relatively inactive base. And the CP was having a difficult time learning to build organization at the base. Many struggles were led by sending in skilled, big-name, national party leaders or TUUL leaders. A lot of good revolutionary work would be done but they usually failed to build up the local units in the process. In the CP's discussion journal there is little consideration of how to build units in the factories, and none of it is a deep or systematic summation of experienc -- eit is mostly harangues that it should be done.

. Nevertheless an orientation was being developed of struggle, of taking the party seriously as the leader of the class. The CP was making deep inroads in the basic industries. Then the crisis hit.

The crisis hits

. In a matter of months millions of workers who had enjoyed relatively stable employment for years were thrown out of work. And every month things got worse. The factory workers were decimated. Not only were the workers' numbers decimated, but those who remained at their jobs were so taken aback by the layoffs and the employer terror that despite constant wage cuts there was almost no motion. The movement of the employed workers that had begun to build during the late 20's was broken up. The party units were wiped out at most factories and over half the party was unemployed. And in industrial cities the figure was more like 80 per cent unemployment among party members.

. During the twenties even though unemployment was high, it was often more temporary and affected a much smaller section of the class. But after 1929, unemployment affected everyone. Half of the class was unemployed, and many of the employed were working only one or two days a week under the Hooverite stagger or share the misery program. Wages were sharply reduced, and a worker did not know from day to day whether he or she would have a job. For the unemployed, there were no benefits. Starvation and homelessness was the order of the day. Millions wandered from city to city homeless and looking for work. The only source of food for millions was the meager rations of the humiliating bread lines. The unemployed were desperate.

. What was going on in the U.S. was going on all over the world to a greater or lesser extent. In this situation the CI called on the parties to seize upon the question of unemployment as the key issue, to organize the struggles of the unemployed for their immediate needs, to strive to organize actions among the employed workers in defense of the unemployed, and to use the bold actions of the unemployed to revolutionize the employed.

. Nowhere in the industrial world was the situation of the unemployed more desperate than in the US. There was no unemployment insurance. The government refused to provide relief, and the unemployed were at the mercy of the soup kitchens, of the private charities and the Salvation Army. As late as 1933, even after the party had won great improvements in relief, Detroit General Hospital reported four deaths per day by starvation.

They were angry

. Not only were the unemployed miserable and desperate, but in many cities they were the majority and they were angry. No one could say now that unemployment was just a temporary phenomenon affecting an unfortunate and lazy few any more. The situation among the masses was such that huge movements and demonstrations could be organized in a matter of days. To give you an example: in Flint, Michigan the entire local party organization was arrested a week before the March 6, 1930 demonstration. No one was left to represent the party or lead the demonstration, and yet 15,000 workers lined the streets waiting for the march to begin.

. One ex-CP'er tells in his biography of a young comrade who was sent to organize in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He arrived by bus and didn't know a soul. He walked across the street from the bus station and began talking and agitating with the unemployed workers hanging out in the park. One worker invited him to stay the night at his home. That night the two of them got together this worker's friends and neighbors and held the first meeting of the Altoona unemployed committee.

The CPUSA as champion of the unemployed

. In this situation it was the CPUSA that stepped forward boldly as the leader of the unemployed. The AFL called on the employed workers to accept wage cuts and part-time work, and continued to oppose any unemployment insurance. The Socialist Party carried out educational activities about the benefits of unemployment insurance. Right up to the day of the great crash, the SP had been praising the stability of American capitalism, and now the liberals and the SP simply bemoaned the plight of the unemployed. But the CP had not only warned of the crash six months in advance, but it immediately went into action to organize the mass struggle of the unemployed.

. During the winter of 1929-1930 the CP organized a nation-wide campaign of local demonstrations demanding immediate relief for the unemployed and national unemployment insurance. The CP and TUUL organizers held hundreds, if not thousands of street corner rallies to mobilize the masses to fight for relief, and distributed thousands of leaflets. They organized demonstrations, protests, and confrontations with relief authorities to demand relief and increases in relief. They began organizing fights to stop evictions. This agitation fell on the receptive ears of millions of workers who had just had the rug pulled out from under them and who were very angry.

. March 6, 1930 saw an international day of unemployed demonstrations called by the CI. The CP brought over a million workers into the streets in cities across the U.S. under the CP banners of "Fight, Don't Starve, Work or Wages,'' demanding relief and unemployment insurance at the expense of the employers and the government. And again on May Day another one-half million marched in the CP unemployed demonstrations. Many of these demonstrations were viciously attacked by the police and pitched battles were fought. It is to the great credit of the CPUSA that it resolutely stepped forward to organize the unemployed masses. The heroism of the communist comrades in those days is an inspiration even to this day.

. These demonstrations set the CP up as the leader of the unemployed movement, which at the time was a relatively uncontested field. And after such successes there was a certain tendency among some sections of the CP to think that the unemployed could be organized simply by calling demonstrations on general slogans such as "Fight, Don't Starve'' and demanding unemployment insurance. But the CP and the CI pointed out, and experience proved, that to build the mass movement and organization among the masses there also had to be sustained struggles around the immediate needs of the masses. Over the next few years the CP, and the unemployed committees and councils organized by it, organized tens of thousands of battles to force state and local governments to provide relief for the unemployed, to stop evictions, to force the government to provide milk for the children of the unemployed, to stop police terror against the unemployed, and so on.

The Unemployed Councils

. The basic form for organizing the unemployed movement was the establishment of unemployed committees primarily in the neighborhoods but also in the unions, the fraternal organizations, at the soup kitchens, etc. , to fight for the various immediate demands of the unemployed. The idea was for the party units and the TUUL to take the lead in forming these committees, but the committees were not officially affiliated with either the CP or the TUUL. The committees were to be open to all unemployed and employed workers in the area, union, flop house, etc. , regardless of party affiliation, and the leading body was to be elected by the workers involved. The unemployed committees in a city or district were to send delegates to a citywide or district unemployed council which would direct the overall movement in the area.

. Initially there were no plans for a national organization. Calls for the major national demonstrations and campaigns were issued through the CP and the TUUL, and the local unemployed councils were mobilized on a individual basis to participate in these campaigns. At some point a national leadership of the Unemployed Councils was established. Still, from the descriptions of the work of the unemployed councils, it seems that this leadership worked more through the Party than directly with the local unemployed councils.

. Thus the first documents on forming unemployed councils did not call for the unemployed councils to be affiliated to the TUUL. The TUUL was to take the lead in launching the councils and committees as organizations of a broad united front from below, open to all workers and unemployed regardless of party or trade union affiliation. But in 1929 the TUUL gave a call for the affiliation of the unemployed Councils to the TUUL, and a similar policy was also followed in Germany. It was criticized by the RILU (Red International of Labor Unions) in early 1931 as sectarian and restrictive. This criticism, at least for the CPUSA, may have been correct in that huge numbers of workers were becoming involved in the movement for the first time and their participation shouldn't be restricted by the demand to accept the principles of the TUUL. However, the practical effect of correcting this error on drawing new masses into the unemployed councils was more limited than the RILU leaders suggested. Everyone knew that the CP and TUUL were organizing the Unemployed Councils, and you could not draw in significantly more unemployed with a formal change from TUUL affiliation to non-affiliation.

Scenes from the struggle

. The work of building the unemployed movement in a city would generally be initiated by building a struggle to demand relief from the city government for the unemployed masses or to prevent cuts in that relief. The CP used some interesting tactics in building the movement.

. For example, in the summer of '32 the city of St. Louis claimed it was running out of funds and planned to cut thousands of families off its emergency relief rolls. To build a movement to fight this, and to build up the CP and unemployed organizations among the mass of workers, the CP and fledgling unemployed councils called meetings in the neighborhoods and demanded that the mayor and city council members come and explain themselves. Only one or two did show up, but hundreds of workers came out and saw the CP expose them, and they participated in denouncing the bourgeois politicians. In this way the party helped the workers see the need for militant action. Then on July 8 the Party and the unemployed councils organized a demonstration five thousand-strong to march on city hall demanding the reinstatement of relief. The workers in the demonstration then elected a delegation to go in to speak with the mayor. Seeing the demonstration outside, the mayor promised food and a temporary relief allowance to those who had come to the demonstration and said that the city council would call a special meeting in three days to consider reinstating relief payments to the fifteen thousand families who had been cut off the rolls.

. The day of the council meeting ten thousand workers showed up, and sent a delegation into the council meeting to represent them. But the police arrested the workers' delegation and fired on the crowd. A pitched battle ensued for several hours. Word spread quickly and the workers were angry. The bourgeoisie took fright and immediately reinstated all the families to the relief rolls. The CP and the unemployed councils distributed 50,000 leaflets on the events, and the CP called for a united front conference of mass organizations for July 24. William Z. Foster spoke to a crowd of two thousand. CP influence grew, and unemployed councils were organized everywhere.

. These kind of movements, struggles, and confrontations were organized by the Party and the unemployed councils in every major industrial city in the country.

. In addition to battles to extend or establish relief, the unemployed committees would be extended by taking up the day-to-day fights of the unemployed against evictions, against individual families being denied relief, against police repression of the unemployed, for milk for children, and against cutting off of utilities. Such battles often reached quite large proportions. One battle over an eviction and a rent strike in New York involved over five hundred workers fighting the police with over two thousand sympathizers standing by.

. In Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago evictions were effectively stopped for whole periods of time. One former CP'er reports in his autobiography that the Sheriff of Cuyahoga County [where Cleveland is located] was so worn down from mass battles over evictions that he approached the local Party leaders to make a deal. He would notify them when an eviction was to take place, and his deputies would move a couple pieces of furniture out into the street and then leave. Then the unemployed council could arrive and move the furniture back in. In this way, the sheriff could tell the courts that he had carried out their eviction orders, while the unemployed council could save the family's home, all without big fights and without moving a whole house of furniture twice.

. Another frequently used form of struggle was to organize fifteen or twenty unemployed workers to go down to the relief offices to confront the officials over denial of relief to an individual unemployed worker. In fact, once some relief for the masses had been won, this kind of thing was often a major activity of the unemployed committees. In the early years even this type of action often led to major confrontations and mass mobilizations.

Links with the employed workers

. The CI and CP literature emphasized the need to draw the employed workers into the movement in defense of the unemployed, and called for using the movement of the unemployed to revolutionize and gain ties with the employed workers in the basic industries. The CP paid considerable attention to this question. In nearly all strikes in areas where the party was active, unemployed councils were mobilized to help the strikers man picket lines, stop scabs, and obtain relief.

. In the early thirties, of course, there were few strikes, but it was during this period that the party achieved one of its biggest successes in uniting the employed and unemployed workers. During the anthracite miners strike in 1931, the party organized unemployed councils in the area and mobilized the unemployed workers to picket, shut down, and smash up the scab recruiting agencies. Then strikers and the unemployed organized a huge march of thirty thousand miners and unemployed that raised the demands of both.

. In another case, in 1933 the unemployed council in Greensburg, Pennsylvania decided to organize the workers in a local sweatshop into a union. So they got a large crowd of unemployed workers together, marched down to the factory, drew the workers out on strike, and won the strike.

. But usually, in the early thirties, due to massive layoffs and the reign of terror in the factories, there was little activity in the factories and therefore the ties were built at a lower level. In the industrial areas, the Party concentrated its work of building the unemployed councils in those neighborhoods where lived workers from the factories they were interested in. During the Hunger March campaigns of 1931 and 1932, and during other local campaigns, the Party organized unemployed marches to the gates of major factories demanding that the capitalists provide relief for their laid off workers. In other cases, the march was against pending layoffs.

. Also leaflets were distributed and collections were taken up inside factories and at the factory gates to help finance the activities and hunger marches of the unemployed and to mobilize the employed to support them. And, as we shall see later on, during 1933 and 1934 the CPUSA carried out a major campaign in the AFL unions to have the workers support the workers' unemployment insurance bill, which the AFL bureaucracy was opposing.

. In a few strikes, the Party was able to get the workers to raise, along with their own demands, the demands of the unemployed who had supported them. But the activity of the employed on behalf of the unemployed generally did not reach the level of the activity of the unemployed in support of strikes. A good deal of the difficulty in developing mass action in support of the unemployed was due to the influence of the AFL labor bureaucrats, including "left'' bureaucrats, in narrowing the scope and militancy of the strike movement. Opportunism was much more entrenched in the unions than in the movement of the unemployed.

The part-time workers

. During the Depression a major link between the employed and unemployed workers were the part-time workers. This was especially true in the steel industry where the vast majority of workers were working part-time, one or two days a month -- or, if they were lucky, one or two days a week. The part-time workers could not live on their wages, so the questions of relief, fighting evictions, and so on were of major importance to them. One of the tactics used by the party and the revolutionary unions for organizing the factories was to launch the unemployed struggle and thereby develop contacts among the part-time workers who were drawn into the fight. As well, inside the factories the demand for relief assistance from the employer for part-time workers was frequently given precedence in organizing the economic struggle.

The councils weren't stable and lasting

. The CP developed quite a reputation as the militant leader of the unemployed and its unemployed councils were widely respected. But there was a problem in building the unemployed councils as stable mass organizations. The struggle itself of the unemployed went through certain phases, and this was also reflected in the councils.

. Frequently the work among the unemployed in a city would begin around the demand that the authorities, or the biggest local capitalist in company towns, provide relief for the unemployed. Big meetings and rallies would be organized to mobilize the masses; bourgeois politicians would be invited to explain themselves and would be exposed and denounced; a big demonstration would be called; there would be confrontations with the police -- maybe even the city hall would be stormed or occupied. In the end the government would come up with money for some kind of relief system, at least for a good section of the unemployed. By 1932 this struggle had forced some kind of government-paid relief system in all the major industrial cities. Once such a system was established the size of the movement would drop off. But there would still be battles of considerable size over the repeated attempts to cut relief payments and over evictions. The struggles against evictions are probably the most well-known feature of the unemployed councils in the 30's, and they frequently did involve hundreds, if not thousands, of workers.

. In the course of these struggles, the party and TUUL activists would call mass meetings of the workers in the district on the issues that were agitating them and around which struggles were being organized. They would discuss the issues and propose the formation of an unemployed committee. The workers would elect a committee. Hundreds of workers would come to weekly meetings for a few weeks and participate in the struggle. There would be a lot of excitement for awhile. But after the most pressing demands had been won or lost, participation in the unemployed committee meetings would drop off. The movement would not develop to a higher level. The workers would stop coming en masse to the meetings, and the committees would end up consisting of the active core of the CPUSA and TUUL activists and the new people they had drawn around themselves in the course of the struggle. This core would continue to organize smaller-scale actions around evictions or the grievances of individual families denied relief. They would have varying success in drawing the wider masses into hunger marches and other campaigns. If some other big issue came up, the meetings would grow again. Frequently, however, the unemployed committees would become inactive after about six months to a year.

Was this due mainly to the CPUSA's method of work?

. The CI and the CP leadership spoke often about this problem. Most frequently they asserted in their articles that the primary cause of this problem was a bureaucratic approach on the part of the party bodies at the base and of the higher party bodies that led them. They said that the party comrades would decide everything that the unemployed council were to do, rather than go through the trouble of holding a meeting and consulting the non-party activists and letting the committee decide. They attributed these errors to the ideological weakness of the party base and a fear among local leaders of unleashing a broad movement that they would not have the forces to control.

. The CI did acknowledge another issue other than that of CPUSA's methods. It pointed out that there would be a tendency for the stagnation and disintegration of the unemployed movement if it failed to link up with the employed workers movement. In the US such a merger was achieved only occasionally. But even this was blamed on lack of effort by the local party organizations.

. The CPUSA's weaknesses were indeed a problem. But there were also other factors involved in what happened to the unemployed councils. If these factors are not given sufficient weight, then the criticism and self-criticism of internal weaknesses can end up as burning pressure to achieve breakthroughs no matter what the conditions and methods. But we will come back to the question of the objective factors in a moment.

CPUSA's internal weaknesses

. Correctly leading broad mass organizations requires considerable skill and ideological clarity. The CPUSA was ideologically weak in general, and particularly at the base. And the bureaucratic leadership was not simply at the base. For example, almost nowhere in the Party Organizer or other journals do you find a concrete summation of the work of building the party organization in the midst of organizing the unemployed. Almost nowhere do you find an attempt to explain how the party leads the non-party masses, how it deals with backward and confused ideas and currents among the masses, etc.

. Instead the question of correct leadership is generally reduced to the question of making sure the committee is elected by the workers, that it forms youth commissions, women's commissions, agit-prop commissions, etc. and that the workers are drawn into the work of these commissions. Although there is a kernel of truth in these points -- the idea of encouraging the participation of the masses -- this approach presented an overelaborate ideal without making an analysis of the actual forms that had come into being and how to move them forward step by step. We did however find a quite concrete criticism of the party's role in leading the unemployed committees that seemed very much to the point, which was made in Party literature repeatedly by Herbert Benjamin and Israel Amter -- that party organizers in the unemployed committees were frequently removed and replaced without consulting the activists or members of the unemployed committee.

. Organizationally the CPUSA, at the beginning of the Depression, still had the problem of activating the majority of its members, and it had an active section who tended to be good organizers as individuals. The internal life at the base suffered from up-in-the-air debates detached from analyzing the tasks-at-hand, and bureaucratic assignments of tasks with almost no check-up. This is actually not unlike the situation facing revolutionary collectives which came up in the mass upsurge of the 60's and 70's.

. The Depression placed enormous external tasks before CPUSA. To its credit, the CPUSA rose to shoulder those tasks. In addition the party faced enormous, almost hysterical, pressure from the CI for breakthroughs in developing organized mass influence and in recruitment of party members. In this situation the work of building up the party organization at the base tended to get short-circuited.

. There were of course some advances. The Daily Worker improved in its coverage and commentary on the work of the party in the local areas. The Party Organizer began coming out to discuss the work at the base. During the National Hunger March Campaigns of 1931 and '32 there was an attempt to organize discussion at the base on the question of tactics in the unemployed movement, and the more backward areas and units were brought into the struggle. But overall organizational attention to the base lagged, and there were numerous mea culpas ["I am to blame"] about this in party literature.

. There was a tendency when an important struggle was coming up to send in a talented organizer from the district or the national leadership who would give tactical direction to the struggle. Big successes would be achieved. But the tendency was not to use these struggles to consolidate and train the existing units.

. For example in the Spring of 1933 the Detroit District organized a big campaign among the unemployed in Dearborn. This work was put in the hands of a talented district organizer. Broad sections of the workers in Dearborn, and to some extent in Detroit, were brought into this campaign, which was directed against Ford and culminated with a second hunger march to the Ford plant to demand relief. Some brilliant tactics were used. But in summing up the work the organizer admits a lot of direct party work was neglected. For example the unit at Ford did not, during the campaign, come out with a single Ford Worker. Considering that one of the main reasons for targeting Ford was to build up Party and union organization among the Ford workers, this mistake reflects a real blindness to building up local Party bodies and learning to organize the mass campaigns through them.

. Another example of this weakness appears in a report on organizing an unemployed council in a small steel town in Southern Ohio. This town had had a number of party members for years; mass meetings and other activities had been carried out; but it had failed to stir the local workers. The district sent an organizer to the town to organize the unemployed. The local comrades were initially skeptical, but soon, with the help of non-party workers, the party had organized a massive movement. Hundreds of workers were attending meetings. The organizer then reports that the party faced a problem of how to lead the unemployed committee since no party members had been elected to the executive committee. He says the party had no forces locally to lead the committee, so the district solved the problem by maintaining close consultation with the non-party workers who had been elected to the leadership of the committee. But what of the local unit? Nothing is mentioned. It seems, rather, that building this unit and its direct work among the rank-and-file masses was overlooked as a way of exerting party influence among the masses. It is of course possible that the whole local unit turned out to be hopeless, but then again nothing like this is said about the unit. It appears to be another case of overlooking the work of local party-building.

Objective factors influencing the councils

. The Party's weakness at the base made bureaucratic methods inevitable to a certain extent. Certainly this weakness made it difficult to handle the complicated question of leading the mass organizations correctly and may have been a factor in the transient nature of unemployed organizations. But there were other objective factors that contributed to the problem, and these were underestimated by both the CI and CP leadership. This underestimation, in turn, was a factor turning party self-criticism into unrealistic pressure to accomplish miracles.

. What were some of these objective factors?

. A) The lives of the unemployed were precarious and disorganized, and this made building stable organization quite difficult. The unemployed were forced to move frequently, suffered constant family crises, etc.

. B) In addition many workers oscillated between unemployment and full or part-time jobs. And frequently the most active elements in the unemployed committees and councils were those most likely to succeed in finding work. This turnover constantly disrupted the core of the unemployed committees.

. C) The majority of American workers at the time had little experience in class organization, even in reformist unions. So their consciousness of the necessity of organization was weak. Indeed the very experience the workers gained in the unemployed committees was an important training for the work of building unions a few years later.

. D) There were still considerable illusions that things would get better eventually. So once some basic relief was won, there was a certain tendency to just wait for better times. Of course, when the bourgeoisie tried to take away what had already been won, which they did about once or twice a year, the masses would again be driven into motion for a time.

. E) There is a strong tendency of an unemployed movement to plateau and stagnate unless it can link up with the movement of the employed workers, form a class-wide fight, and broaden its perspectives. Otherwise the tendency is for the unemployed committees to be limited to local grievance committees, and for the movement to dissipate. But such a link up was quite difficult in the early thirties because there wasn't much of an employed workers' movement to speak of. Up to 1933 there was such devastation of the workers, and such a reign of terror in the factories, that the movement was quite low.

. F) There was the influence of bourgeois and reformist trends. In the beginning the field was relatively wide open for the Communist Party. But by 1932 and 1933 the Party, while still the largest and strongest political force among the unemployed, faces growing competition from the Muste-ites, the Socialist Party, and the bourgeois politicians. (3) The bourgeois demagogues and the opportunist-led unemployed organizations promised the unemployed that there was an easier path to obtain some relief and economic security than militant class struggle. Thus the masses would only become active in the Party-associated unemployed councils when there was a big crisis or the politicians and reformists had sufficiently exposed themselves. At all times the workers had tremendous respect for the CPUSA and the unemployed councils for the struggle they led and the battles they had won. Even the enemies of the CPUSA had to admit the existence of this respect. But it was inevitable that the masses would tend to float between the different trends until they learned by their experience the correctness of communist policy and leadership. I will go more into this in a later section.

. Thus powerful objective factors worked against building the unemployed councils as large, highly-structured, long-term mass organizations. The form that actually developed was a very loose mass organization with an active core of communists and militant activists. The masses could flock into them at times of ferment and crisis, while a smaller core carried on the work with wide mass sympathy in between. This looks like it may have been the best form for the situation. (It can be noted that in every country the unemployed organizations only embraced a small percentage of consistently active unemployed, but the influence of these small organizations was very big.)

FDR Takes Office

. The coming to power of the Roosevelt administration in early 1933 brought about major changes in the political situation, and affected the party's tactics in the unemployed movement and on other fronts.

. Franklin D. Roosevelt took over in March of 1933 at the lowest point of the great depression. Over 17 million were unemployed. The banking system was about to collapse. The farm economy had collapsed. Discontent was spreading, with a strike wave beginning among the employed, farmers battling against mortgage foreclosures, and the unemployed a hotbed. Hoover's tactics of let them eat cake had not solved the economic crisis, and there was tremendous anger in the country.

. In this situation, Roosevelt's administration marked a major change in the tactics of the bourgeoisie towards the economy, and towards the workers and unemployed. Unlike Hoover, FDR talked a lot of bull to present himself as the friend of the workers and unemployed, and he said he would help the forgotten man and throw out the money changers. He turned to corporate state programs, in particular the National Recovery Administration (NRA), to cut down competition among the big capitalists (these same money changers) and let them fix prices and wages among themselves. When major sections of the capitalists balked at his NRA boards as too much government interference, he organized huge demonstrations to pressure them to join. (Within a matter of months, NRA boards had been established in all major industries, as the capitalists saw that the wage and hour standards could be set quite low, ignored when necessary, or used as wage ceilings against workers' demands, while the price fixing was for real.)

. At the same time, he promised the workers that the NRA would bring them higher wages and the right to form unions. The reformist leaders of the AFL were given some seats on the NRA's wage boards. Arbitration boards were set up to resolve disputes between employers and unions.

. Through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the federal government bailed out the nearly bankrupt state and local governments by taking over most of the expense of providing the abysmally low relief payments. He began the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program which provided some unemployed youth with jobs reforesting the countryside -- in camps run by the army at very low wages. And he set up the Public Works Administration (PWA -- which was distinct from the much larger WPA, which was started later) for public works. But the PWA projects took a long time to start, the PWA was never that large, and it included a good deal of military construction. (The aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown were PWA projects.)

. The initial impact of Roosevelt's programs was to create a lot of illusions among the masses that things would soon be better. But the actual course of events led to struggles. Roosevelt's promises of higher wages were not met. At the same time, while Roosevelt had tried to channel the workers' struggle for organization to the reformists, Roosevelt's capitalist class brothers didn't want any unions, and they sought to force the workers into company unions on a massive scale. So the struggle to form unions led to bloody and militant strikes over the next few years.

. Roosevelt's promises to the unemployed initially tended to put a damper on the unemployed movement. But anger began to grow when, after a few months, unemployment again began to grow. In addition, the centralizing of relief in the hands of the federal government tended to concentrate the struggle. And Roosevelt had a penchant for workfare or work relief programs for a minority of the unemployed, instead of unemployment insurance or universal relief -- in these programs, the relief recipients were required to work in return for semi-starvation payments which were, however, higher than the relief for those who stayed at home. These program brought thousands and thousands of unemployed workers together on projects, and so made it easier to organize them than if they were isolated at home.

. Every time the unemployed began to stir, Roosevelt would launch another work relief program for some more workers. At the same time he would try to cut back on direct relief. When he felt that the pressure of the unemployed had eased, he would cut back on the work relief programs as well. This giving with one hand and taking back with the other created crises of discontent among the unemployed.

CPUSA's Stand Toward FDR

. The CP's initial stand towards Roosevelt and his NRA program was basically correct. The AFL hacks eagerly joined in the NRA, took positions on Industry Boards, and preached cooperation, mediation and arbitration of strikes. But the CPUSA pointed out that the Roosevelt program was to use the state to help the capitalists overcome the crisis at the expense of the masses and to give the masses the minimum of concessions possible. It called on the workers to defy the NRA standards on wages, to reject arbitration of their strikes, and to organize unions through the policy of militant class struggle.

. The CP pointed to the corporate state features of Roosevelt's policy and characterized his regime as a step on the road to fascism. The CP may have overplayed the issue of fascism even though its assessment there was a fascist danger was generally correct. And this was connected to a certain difficulty the CPUSA had dealing with illusions created by Roosevelt among the masses. Roosevelt did throw certain crumbs to the masses. He did express more sympathy for the plight of the masses (words about money changers are cheap). And this policy did create illusions among the masses and require one to be concrete and tactical in developing the criticism of the Roosevelt plan.

. For example, the CPUSA characterized the CCC as a fascist forced labor program for the indoctrination of youth. And in fact the indoctrination part was true. But to the starving unemployed even such jobs -- at one-third of the average wage, under army supervision, etc. -- had appeal. The CCC could not be boycotted through denunciation, but those in it had to be dealt with as those on other programs were.

. To give some example of the different atmosphere under Roosevelt than Hoover, consider a related example. In 1932 the Party had assumed leadership of the Veterans bonus march on Washington and Hoover had called out the army to smash up the veterans encampment and drive them out of Washington. In 1933 the party led another veterans march on Washington, demanding a bonus for all unemployed veterans. This time Roosevelt had the army provide tents and three meals a day for the marchers. Roosevelt himself received the marchers. Although he refused to grant their demands, he did offer any marcher who wanted it a CCC job. One thousand out of the 2,400 bonus marchers took Roosevelt up on this offer.

. Clearly it would not do to characterize Roosevelt's policy as a simple continuation of Hoover's starve 'em policy, nor to shout that Roosevelt was the precursor of fascism which the Party's agitation sometimes tended to be limited to. A way had to be found to show the masses that the small concessions that Roosevelt granted were not out of the goodness of his heart, but were a byproduct of the mass struggle that had been developing. A way to demonstrate that Roosevelt's increased federal intervention hadn't changed the nature of the capitalist system that was crushing them. A way to help the masses see the need for further development of their struggle.

. The CP did realize the necessity for adjusting its tactics. It made considerable improvement in this direction, although in its propaganda there continued to be vacillations between tailing reformist illusions and making sectarian sideline denunciations. Still, any woodiness in the CPUSA's line must be judged in the context that it stood up to the demagogy of Roosevelt and the wave of illusions that swept the masses, and told the masses that class struggle was the way out.

The Party Conference of July 1933

. In July of 1933 the Party held a conference to discuss its tactics and central tasks in light of the new situation. This conference pointed out that there was an upsurge of the strike movement underway. The workers were taking Roosevelt's promise of the right to organize into unions seriously; there was a massive movement of the unorganized to try to get into unions; and this was leading to major battles with the capitalists. The conference and the subsequent Party discussion pointed out that the NRA gave a distinct advantage to the AFL unions. So the Party should hasten to establish itself and TUUL organization in the big factories, at the same time as greatly stepping up its fraction work (the building up of the red opposition) in the AFL unions, as these union were attracting hundreds of thousands of new and militant workers.

. It also pointed out that, behind all Roosevelt's demagogy about sympathy for the unemployed, he was actually doing very little for them. He had dropped his vague talk during the election campaign about unemployment insurance, and the CPUSA must continue to develop the struggles of the unemployed.

Industrial concentration as the central task

. The Party stated that the central task was industrial concentration and developing the workers' struggle in defiance of the NRA; at the same time, it declared that unemployed work must not be allowed to slacken. The idea that industrial concentration was the central task of the Party was not new. The CI had been stressing this earlier, and had reinforced the idea again in 1931 after the unemployed movement had gotten going. But in 1933, with rise of the strike movement, there was a real possibility of making a big push in the factories. The CPUSA organized a massive discussion in the Party press and in all Party districts, sections and units on this orientation, and it lasted 6 months. As a result this work was taken up seriously.

A lesser level of work among the unemployed

. But as it turned out the CPUSA was unable to develop work both among the employed in the big factories and among the unemployed full speed at the same time. It was not planned this way, but the unemployed work fell off sharply in most areas of the country. The Party did maintain a presence among the unemployed and drew a section into strikes. When major city-wide or state-wide cuts in relief came up, it was still able to reactive the network of the unemployed councils. But generally, across the country, the unemployed committees and councils went into a period of dormancy. The party simply was unable to concentrate on both fronts at once.

. It was quite correct to concentrate on the factory work and the strike movement, even at the expense of the work among the unemployed, as this was a period during which intense battles raged over which political trend would have the dominant influence among workers in the basic mass production industries.

Unemployment Rises and the CWA Is Promised

. An example of the work that did continue with respect to the unemployed took place around the CWA program. In the fall of '33 unemployment began to rise again. (During the winter of 1933-34 it would reach the level of March '33. ) So the NRA had not rescued the country, and illusions in Roosevelt began to break down. Roosevelt was forced to announce his Civil Works Administration (CWA) program which was supposed to put four million workers to work for four months on relief projects at wages double or triple the average relief allotment, which would mean the difference between malnutrition and at least keeping body and soul together.

. But Roosevelt only provided CWA jobs for about a quarter of the unemployed. He would also stop the program after about three months, with the workers either laid off or forced to work on FERA projects at half the wages.

. Millions of workers showed up at registration halls to apply for CWA work, but only a minority got jobs. The Party put out a call for comrades in the local areas to go to the CWA hiring halls, to get on the CWA program, and to organize its workers, and also to organize those who were turned down to demand jobs and higher relief.

. In some areas the CPUSA did get people on the CWA programs, and they did get valuable experience organizing on work relief projects. This stood the Party in good stead later when the WPA program became the main form of federal relief for the unemployed. In some areas the Party did lead strikes over the wage cuts that occurred as the CWA program was phased out. But most of the local areas were unable to take advantage of the tense situation surrounding the opening and closing of the CWA program as they were preoccupied with the work of industrial concentration and strikes.

. And, although the emphasis on the work in the factories and in strikes led to the falling apart of systematic unemployed work in many of the big cities, the work continued to forge ahead in the Prairie states, Washington state, and the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, and parts of Ohio.


. In 1931 the Musteites had organized Unemployed Leagues in Seattle and Washington State. They dominated the unemployed movement there and oriented it to self-help projects and electoral politics. The Musteites organized the unemployed to support various bourgeois politicians in the state and local elections in 1932. Once elected, these politicians promptly turned around and cut the relief budget for the unemployed.

. But during 1933 the CPUSA stepped in and exposed the Musteite leaders of the movement. The party led the unemployed in a hunger march and a three-day occupation of Seattle's city hall. They worked inside the Musteite-organized Unemployed Leagues and won the workers to a class struggle policy. They organized a struggle which temporarily halted evictions in Seattle. They organized strikes of the FERA relief workers. And they organized a united front conference to push for unemployment insurance.

. By 1934 all the unemployed leagues in the state of Washington had affiliated to the CP-led Unemployed Councils.

. During the West Coast Marine strike the Unemployed Leagues in Seattle played a major role in the picket line battles and in driving scabs off the docks. The unemployed helped the strikers obtain relief during the strike. The unemployed under the Party leadership were a major force in pushing the strike to the left, in combating the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) and International Seamen's Union (ISU) hacks, and initiating the call for the general strike.


. Thus, although the party was unable to devote the necessary forces to the struggle of the unemployed, the potential continued to exist for pushing these struggles forward. Its development, even in a less organized and systematic manner than before, contributed to breaking down illusions in Roosevelt. And frequently the unemployed played a major role in pushing forward the strikes of the employed workers, as in the West Coast Maritime strike, Toledo Autolite strike, the Stratton Strike in Milwaukee, and the Mckeesport, Pennsylvania strike where thousands of unemployed workers were mobilized to join the strikers on the picket line in a struggle for the demands of both.

The Workers' Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill

. It was also during the first years of the Roosevelt regime that the CP launched its major national agitational campaign on the question of the unemployed. This was the campaign for the worker's unemployment and social insurance bill.

. Actually this was not a new demand for the CP. From the earliest days of the Depression, the CP had raised the demand for a federal system of unemployment insurance at the expense of the capitalists, and administered by elected bodies of workers. It had obtained a million signatures on a petition to introduce the demand as legislation in Congress. It had made the demand a central part of its hunger marches in '31 and '32, and it was the main demand of its '32 presidential election campaign.

. This work, and the struggle of the unemployed led by the Party, had so popularized the view that the capitalists must provide for the unemployed that even the bourgeois politicians had to begin promising some sort of unemployment insurance. In the '32 elections Roosevelt promised some sort of unemployment insurance. The Chamber of Commerce had to advocate a system of unemployment reserves. During 1933-34, 125 unemployment insurance bills and schemes were introduced into state legislatures across the country. Even the AFL had to reverse its position of opposition to unemployment insurance.

. But of course the unemployment insurance schemes advocated by AFL and the liberal democrats were but token schemes. They were to be set up on a state-by-state basis, rather than federal, thus dividing the workers struggle. They offered minimal benefits, usually ten weeks or so, and no benefits at all to those who were already unemployed. Thus the question was becoming not whether there would be unemployment insurance, but what kind of unemployment insurance, what kind of relief, would be provided the masses.

. In early 1933, the CI had urged the CPUSA to launch a new campaign for social and unemployment insurance. It pointed out that the Workers' Bill would expose the sham social insurance promises and puny relief measures of Roosevelt and the liberal Democrats and pave the way for struggle.

. The Worker's Bill was simple, less than a page long. It called for all those who were unemployed, disabled, or too old to work to be paid a benefit equal to their average wages while employed, or a minimum of ten dollars per week plus three dollars per week per dependent. The system was to be financed by a tax on all incomes greater than $5,000 (which was big money in those days), and administered by elected workers councils.

. Following the July '33 Party conference, the CPUSA initiated this campaign with a vengeance. For the next year and a half the Daily Worker carried daily articles on the progress of the campaign. Each day it reported on new resolutions passed by unions, unemployed organizations, etc. in support of the Workers Bill. It also exposed the fraudulent nature of the bourgeois and social-democratic alternatives to the Workers bill.

. Because of the prestige built up over years of militant defense of the unemployed, Party or unemployed council representatives were able to go and address thousands and thousands of AFL locals. The Party explained the bill at these meetings and led fights for resolutions endorsing the Worker's Bill despite AFL President Green's prohibition. (The AFL hacks were backing the Democrats' bill.) By January of 1935 the Party had secured endorsements for the bill from 3,000 AFL, TUUL and independent union locals, five AFL state federations, and 30 city councils, and hundreds of fraternal organizations. Despite the objections of their leaders, the unemployed organizations led by the Musteites and the Socialist Party also endorsed the Worker's Bill.

. Throughout 1934 the party organized demonstrations in support of the Workers' Bill. In several states it got the Workers' bill on the ballot as referendum questions. And in 1934 the party made the Workers' Bill the central issue in its election campaign.

. The Party was thus able to make the question of unemployment insurance a major national issue. It used this issue as part of its fight for class independence among the workers, and to develop contacts and opposition groups in the reformist unions and unemployed groups. Although the Workers' Bill was never passed, it was introduced in Congress, and the debate on it attracted national attention.

. By the summer of '34 Roosevelt was talking about unemployment insurance again and promising a big work relief program at close to average wages. Roosevelt promised to introduce his unemployment insurance bill to Congress in January '35. Thus the battle would be fought over what kind of unemployment and social insurance or what kind of relief program the workers would get. Roosevelt's bill provided just about nothing to the unemployed during the Depression. It postponed any benefits at all for two years while insurance reserves were built up. And then most states required that, to obtain benefits, you had to have worked 40 weeks in the previous year, which just about nobody had. But this was the bill Congress passed in the summer of '35. After this, although the Party continued to demand the Workers' Bill, it ended its campaign on the subject.

Weaknesses in the Campaign for the Workers' Bill

. There were of course weaknesses in the Party's campaign for unemployment insurance. At the time the Worker's Bill was launched a good part of the party membership was of the opinion that unemployment insurance was a demand that was realizable only after the socialist revolution or just before. They considered that the party's demand for unemployment insurance was only an agitational slogan, and that no serious struggle could be launched for it.

. To counteract these views the party leadership understated the degree of struggle and mass ferment that would be necessary to win the Workers' Bill, and it overstated the economic security that social insurance would bring. True, it is possible to win some kind of social insurance under capitalism, as history shows. The idea that American capitalism was so different from European capitalism that no kind of social insurance would ever be granted was indeed very mistaken. But the Workers' Bill was not just some kind of social insurance. The Workers' Bill was the kind of social insurance of most advantage to the working class. To win such a reform would require a very high level of class struggle, if not a revolution.

. As well, the Party overestimated the significance of endorsements by reformist-led unions and mass organizations, and underestimated the difficulty in turning such endorsements into mass actions.

. These kinds of errors could just have been a certain one-sidedness that would be corrected with time and experience. Or such assessments can lead to parliamentarism and a glossing over of the fight against opportunism. They can lead to eventual accommodation to the labor hacks and reformist leaders in the hopes of big numbers and quick victories. Unfortunately, it was right during this later phase of the campaign for the Workers' Bill that the CI was encouraging moves in the reformist direction.

The National Congress on Unemployment Insurance of January 1935

. As it became apparent that Congress would consider the question of unemployment insurance in 1935, the CP organized a National Congress on Unemployment and Social Insurance. To this meeting of January 1935 were invited elected delegates of all the mass organizations that had endorsed the Workers' Bill. They were supposed to map a plan of action for the next few months for rallies, demonstrations and strikes during the time that Congress debated whether to pass the Workers Bill or Roosevelt's unemployment non-insurance bill.

. But at this Congress Browder, the prominent CP leader whose name later became synonymous with blatant revisionism, gave a speech where he did not talk about the task of organizing mass struggle. Instead he gave a call for the formation of a Labor Party.

The Question of the Labor Party

. Perhaps the question of forming a Labor Party might not have been totally off the wall at the time. In general it may have been something you might want to consider. There was a strong movement to the left among the masses in 1934, This radicalization down below was showing up in cracks developing in the bourgeois two-party political system. There was Upton Sinclair's utopian socialist campaign for governor of California, Huey Long's Share the Wealth campaign, the Townsend movement, and so on. It appeared likely that some kind of mass third party or third parties might develop. In this situation one might consider using a call for a labor party to expose the labor hacks' obsequious tailism of the bourgeois parties and promote the idea of class independence.

. Actually, at this point it is doubtful that labor party agitation could have played such a role, but more detailed research would be required to give a definitive answer to the question. The point however is not so much the call for the labor party, but the parliamentary cretinist twist given to that call, and the whitewashing of the role of the reformist labor leaders. And Browder rhapsodized over an immediate change in the nature of Congress with the advent of some congressmen to be elected from this Labor Party.

. This speech was based on some ideas that Browder had been toying with since November '34. His call for a labor party was approved at the plenum of the Executive Committee of the CI in December '34. And then he set it forward at the unemployment insurance congress of January '35. It sent out a signal that the CP was making a turn to the right, and that it was looking to make unprincipled alliances with the left-posturing sections of the labor bureaucracy and the Socialist Party.

. Over the next few years, to achieve such alliances, the party progressively trimmed its sails and liquidated the political content of its work on one front after another. At the Third National Conference of the MLP,USA a comrade reported on the disastrous effects of this policy on the CPUSA's work in the trade unions, specifically, in the auto industry. [See "The CPUSA's work in auto and the change in line of the mid-1930's'' in the March 20, 1987 issue, vol. 3, #3, of the Workers' Advocate Supplement. ] But the liquidation of the work on the unemployed front was even more criminal, if possible.

. After 1935 the unemployed movement ebbed considerable, but there continued to be periodic and militant battles against cuts in relief, and there were also strikes by WPA workers over wages and against cut offs from the rolls. Part of the decline in the movement can be attributed to the fact that unemployment did decrease substantially, and there were more benefits for the unemployed. In 1936 there were 10 million unemployed with 2 1/2 million on WPA projects and 2-3 million on direct relief, whereas in 1933 there were 17 million unemployed, no WPA, and 5 million on very meager direct relief. But the other factor in the decline of the movement was the rightward, liquidationist turn in the policy from the CPUSA, which developed more and more after this time and was in accord with the policy of the Seventh Congress of the CI of 1935.

The Struggle of Trends in the Unemployed Movement

. The liquidation of the work among the unemployed proceeded despite the fact that, if there was anywhere the party was fighting from a position of strength, it was in the work among the unemployed. Even when forces were shifted to industrial concentration and trade union work, and thus work with the unemployed councils fell off, these councils were still the biggest and most respected unemployed organizations in New York and the major industrial cities in the Midwest.

. Up until 1932 the Party had a virtual monopoly on the unemployed movement. At that time A. J. Muste's Conference For Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) began organizing the unemployed in Seattle and Washington state, and a few months later they began activities in Southern California, southern Ohio, and Illinois. The CPLA's National Unemployed Leagues presented themselves as almost as radical as the Unemployed Councils, but more respectable and more "American''. A few months later the SP began organizing unemployed workers committees in New York and Chicago. The SP and the Musteites both benefited from ties with the bourgeois political machines in winning favors for the workers.

. The CP had difficulty with the question of different trends emerging. Initially the CP blamed the emergence of competing unemployed organizations on the lack of effort on the part of its comrades in organizing the unemployed, as was its typical voluntarist analysis. But basically it adopted correct tactics. It called for the unity in action of the unemployed on concrete issues, and called for one unemployed organization based on militant tactics of class struggle and on freedom of agitation for different trends. At the same time it also had party comrades join the SP and Musteite unemployed organizations and push for a class struggle policy and unity with the Unemployed Councils. The radicalization of the unemployed was such that these tactics were very successful.

. The Party was thus able to win leadership of many locals of the National Unemployed Leagues. In 1933 the unemployed leagues in Seattle and Washington state, the birth place of the Musteite unemployed organizations, affiliated with the Unemployed Councils.

. That same year the SP called a conference of unemployed organizations in an attempt to form a national unemployed center opposed to the CP-led unemployed councils. It tried to block the admission of representatives of the unemployed councils to the conference, but the rank-and-file of its own unemployed organizations voted to admit the communists. The SP wound up being so isolated that it was forced to walk out of its own conference.

. During 1934 both the SP and Musteite unemployed organizations voted to back the CP's Workers' Bill although the SP was basically backing the Roosevelt program. The pressure was so great that, in order to maintain credibility among the workers, the SP and Musteite unemployed leaders were forced to call nation-wide demonstrations in support of the Workers' Bill. Thus the CP's position among the unemployed was strong. Although there was a certain drifting of workers between trends, the basic motion was in the CP's direction.

. But the CP felt strongly the pressure of the left-wing of the reformists in the workers' movement as a whole. The strike movement of '34 had demonstrated that while the workers were moving left and the party had a lot of influence, they were not ready to come over to the party. The "left'' socialists, the Musteites, and the "independent'' union leaders (4) were playing a centrist role in blocking the workers from moving directly to the Party and its revolutionary unions.

. In general the CP had a lot of difficulty understanding and dealing with this phenomenon. With the change in line of the CI, the CPUSA just gave up the protracted work necessary to expose the left-posturing trends and win the workers to the communist line and policy. Instead it began to see the left posturers, and later even the right-wing of the movement, as progressive forces to merge with.

Unity Agreements Among the Organizations of the Unemployed

. In April '35 the SP united its unemployed groups into the Workers' Alliance. Despite the opposition of the SP right-wing, the convention of the Workers Alliance voted to begin unity negotiations with the CP's Unemployment Councils.

. A year later a unity agreement was reached at the top. The CP agreed to merge the National Unemployed Council into the Worker's Alliance and give the SP a two-thirds majority on the National Executive. This was a major concession, but it's not like they surrendered everything to the SP. Due to the disintegration of the SP, and the CP's more energetic work at the base, the CP was soon backed by local and state organizations representing 75 per cent of the membership, and in a year was the dominant force in the national leadership in alliance with the left reformists.

The liquidation of all struggle

. But the CP itself had turned to the right. The Workers Alliance' became more or less the trade union of the WPA workers. The work among the unemployed who did not get in the WPA fell apart altogether. The politics of the Workers Alliance became more and more rightist. Mass demonstrations or strikes subsided or were carried out totally in the confines of what was acceptable to the labor hacks and the Rooseveltian coalition. Things got so bad that when the economy collapsed again in 1938 and unemployment went as high as it was in 1932, Herbert Benjamin, the CP's main leader in the Workers Alliance, stated:

. "Times have changed. The fight of the last eight years has not been in vain. The attitude and policy of the government have changed. . . Responsible leaders of the unemployed are not likely to advise any action which would jeopardize the necessary collaboration with the powerful unions and progressive movements generally.''

. And just in case anyone failed to understand, he said there could be no demonstrations "against officials supported by organized labor and progressive forces.''

. Thus, even though the CP enjoyed a very strong position among the unemployed, it had progressively trimmed its sails to the point of liquidating the struggle for the sake of its overall ties with the labor bureaucrats and Democratic Party politicians. The Workers Alliance became an ordinary pressure group. Such were the bitter liquidationist fruits of the 7th Congress Line.

. Despite the liquidation of the unemployed work by the rightward turn at the 7th Congress, there is much that can be learned from the heroic and inspiring work of the party in the early and mid-30's. And much to be learned from the tragedy wrought by the liquidationist course. <>


(WAS) The Workers' Advocate, and Workers' Advocate Supplement, which carried additional materials including many of the longer theoretical articles, were publications of the Marxist-Leninist Party of the US. The MLP, which was founded in 1980 and dissolved in November 1993, sought to build up an anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism, opposed both to Stalinism and Trotskyism. Its roots went back in the mass movements of the 1960s, especially the anti-racist, anti-war, and workers' movements, and the WA itself was published from 1969 to 1993. The cause of anti-revisionist communism is upheld today by the Communist Voice Organization, and the Communist Voice is a theoretical journal which is a successor to the Workers' Advocate. (Return to text.)

(1) The TUUL is the Trade Union Unity League. It was founded on August 31-Sept. 1, 1929 as a reorganization of the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) at its fourth national convention. The CPUSA's trade union work was concentrated through these organizations which were organizations of militant workers who accepted a red program for the trade unions but were not necessarily communists. The TUEL for example called for a class struggle economic policy, for amalgamation of the craft unions into industrial unions, organizing the unorganized, affiliation to the Red International of Labor Unions, recognition of the USSR, and the abolition of capitalism.

. The TUEL and the TUUL were similar in many ways. The main significance of the changeover from TUEL to TUUL concerned work within the AFL. TUEL concentrated on work within the AFL and other capitalist-led unions. But the TUUL, while continuing work within the AFL, concentrated on organizing the unorganized into new industrial unions with a class struggle policy. The TUEL was mainly an organization of the left-wing opposition in the unions, while the TUUL sought to set up militant industrial unions. (Text)

(2) For example, John Williamson gives the 10% figure in his article "Some Burning Problems of Organization" in the June 1930 issue of The Communist. However, he doesn't say whether this figure was affected by the onslaught of the economic crisis. (Text)

(3) The Muste-ites were a group of left social-democrats. The social-democratic Socialist Party trailed behind the AFL bureaucrats. In 1929 the Conference for Progressive Labor Action was formed as a centrist force between the reformists and the CP, with A. J. Muste one of its chief figures. The CPLA had a more radical program than the SP and called for a number of the things that the CP did, including recognition of the Soviet Union. But it was flabby with respect to the bourgeoisie, in practice lined up towards the reformists, posed as more "American'' than the communists, and worked to block the motion of the masses towards the CP. (Text)

(4) The "independent" unions referred to were those that were neither AFL nor red. (Text)

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